IN CERTAIN postmodern histories, post-war American modernism has been defined in terms of specific art practices promoted and described by the art critic Clement Greenberg. These practices were confined to painting and sculpture, the results of which were essentially either abstract in character or moving towards abstraction. In reality modernism was never quite so clean-cut, for modernist artists had a history of collaborating with, being influenced by and, in turn, influencing a range of practitioners in various fields – from composers, to choreographers, to writers etc.. Indeed, the history of modernism is one of trying to break free from the traditional confines of the specific medium. Two prime examples of such collaborations are the 1917 ballet Parade and John Cage’s Theater Piece #1, of 1952 – each of these demonstrating a certain anarchy which I see as the hallmark of modernist practice.
Parade was described in Guillaume Apollinaire’s preface to the work as a ‘sort of surrealism […] the point of departure for a series of manifestations of the New Spirit’. Within a month, Apollinaire had given this ‘New Spirit’ a name by coining the adjective ‘surrealist’. (1) A collaboration between Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Leonide Massine and Erik Satie, Parade, causing public outrage for its frivolity in a time of war, had been just as shocking in 1917 as had Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades in 1912 and Gustave Courbet’s The Stone Breakers in 1849 – and for much the same reasons. Following these precedents, Parade had drawn heavily on the everyday and presented it in the context of the high arts. That is, everything from the sounds of typewriters, sirens and aeroplanes to the stilted walk of Charlie Chaplin, the mimicry of film drama, and the music of the popular burlesque.
Unlike The Stone Breakers and the Readymades, which still functioned as painting or sculpture, the gigantic cubist costumes for the French Manager and the Manager from New York disrupted any pretence at ballet by preventing any movement resembling dance. In stark contrast in style was the realism of Picasso’s scenery and his other costume designs (burlesque tent, acrobats, modern American girl, Chinese conjurer, and pantomime horse). (2) Therefore Picasso was able (to quote his biographer John Richardson) to ‘deploy far vaster effects than in the studio; to work more freely than ever before in three dimensions, and to explore the breakthrough he had made in 1912-13 with his cardboard constructions.’ For Richardson, the Cubist costumes represented one of Picasso’s ‘most imaginative attempts to merge painting and sculpture’. (3) On Satie’s part, involvement in this project represented the culmination of two decades of musical experimentation. Like Picasso, Satie hailed from an era of exploration which included Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi of 1896 (which captured Picasso’s imagination, leading to various drawings), and Raymond Roussel’s zither-playing earthworm of 1911 (more performance than music).
In 1948, just three years after World War Two, John Cage introduced Satie’s work to the students and staff of the Black Mountain College in North Carolina in a Satie festival which included a revival of The Ruse of Medusa (1913). According to RoseLee Goldberg, this work ‘introduced the little-known absurdities of Satie’s “drama” and his eccentric musical ideas’. (4) Amongst those participating were Cage’s long-time collaborator, Merce Cunningham (whose choreographic style, according to Jonathan Fineberg, had parallels with ‘allover’ painting), and Elaine and Willem de Kooning, who were teaching there that summer. (5)
Reflecting the cross-influential camaraderie of Satie’s coterie of painters, poets and musicians at ‘Le Chat Noir’ in 1890s Montmartre, or the ‘band à Picasso’ at Picasso’s Bateau Lavoir studio circa 1907, in New York the Black Mountain ethos spilled over into the Cedar Tavern and the Club – respectively the watering-hole and intellectual melting-pot for a swathe of artists, poets, writers, critics and musicians. Throughout the fifties, the Cedar saw everything from readings by Alan Ginsberg, to a famous brawl commencing a friendship between Pollock and the Beat poet Robert White Creeley. (6) According to Dore Ashton, the Club (founded in 1948 by a core group of Greenberg’s pantheon, including Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still) in its early phase at ‘The Subjects of the Artist’ school was where intellectuals like Cage, Harold Rosenberg and Hannah Arendt ‘dealt with questions that broadened the base of the painters’ discourse’ – a tradition continuing when the Club changed venue. (7) And then there were Cage’s popular musical soirées attended by de Kooning, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock (who apparently, in the last years of his life, listened to recordings of Cage’s music as ‘a counterpoint to his inexhaustible activity’). (8) In 1951 de Kooning would say that Marcel Duchamp (seen by many as a prime progenitor of postmodernism) was on ‘a train track in the history of art’ going ‘way back to Mesopotamia’. This admiration was shared by Cage, who had known Duchamp since 1941. (9) Beyond Black Mountain and Duchamp, de Kooning and Cage were further linked by a joint editorship, along with Rosenberg and Pierre Chareau, of a single issue publication appearing in the winter of 1947-8. (10)
In all, an ongoing dialogue was building up across the board between these various creators and intellectuals which, in the visual arts, would proceed to inform the work of, for instance, Kline, Ronald Bladen, Larry Poons, Robert Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers. In turn, Claes Oldenburg can be seen to have been indirectly linked to this group and directly influenced by it. In 1958, through Red Grooms, he had discovered Alan Kaprow and Cage; he ‘found’ Jim Dine, and through Kaprow he met George Segal and Roy Lichtenstein. (11) The result of this dialogue was an explosion of what Paul Schimmel calls ‘the complex and overlapping art movements of the fifties’ – everything from assemblage, to happenings, to Beat, to figuration, to hard-edge, to Pop, etc. (12) The question is, was this all so different from what was happening in fin-de-siècle Paris? Probably not, but more significantly, the influence of Satie seems to have transcended time to inspire Cage’s Theater Piece # 1. Peformed at the Black Mountain College, this work became known as ‘the event’ and is universally considered to be the first ‘happening’
It was an impromptu performance, delivered in the summer of 1952 on the evening of the afternoon it was organised. From Goldberg’s description, this event proceeded in the following manner:
“White paintings by … Rauschenberg hung overhead. From a step-ladder, Cage… read a text on ‘the relation of music to Zen Buddhism’ … Then he performed a ‘composition with a radio’, following the prearranged ‘time brackets’. At the same time Rauschenberg played old [Piaf] records on a hand-wound gramophone and David Tudor played a ‘prepared piano’. Later Tudor turned to two buckets, pouring water from one to the other … planted in the audience, Charles Olson and Mary Caroline Richards read poetry. Cunningham and others danced through the aisles chased by an excited dog. Rauschenberg flashed ‘abstract’ slides (created by coloured gelatine sandwiched between the glass) … ‘whistles blew, babies screamed and coffee was served by four boys dressed in white’ … And it provided Cunningham with a new décor and costume designer … Rauschenberg.” (13)
Rauschenberg’s involvement in this performance demonstrates how the influence of Cage (whom he had known since the late forties, and who, along with Duchamp, has been seen as his intellectual mentor), impacted upon his decision soon afterwards to attach everyday objects to his paintings (the ‘combines’). That is, the ‘prepared piano’, invented by Cage in 1938, was itself hung with just such objects attached to its strings – disrupting conventions of music, just as Rauschenberg was disrupting conventions of painting. But the influence was reciprocal for, soon after the 1952 event, Cage, according to Jonathan Fineberg, inspired by Rauschenberg’s ‘silent’ paintings, wrote his famous 4’ 33”, which, in turn, Goldberg connects to Cage’s statement that his favourite piece was ‘the one we hear all the time if we are quiet.’ (14) It was a celebration of the everyday remarkably similar to, yet less ebullient than, Claes Oldenberg’s classic ‘I am for an art…’ statement of 1961, but closer still to an earlier statement of 1959, which was : (15)
“Place: the city, materials of the city, textures of the city, expressions of the city, of the street: asphalt, concrete, tar, paper, metal…etc. natural and manmade effects. Newspapers, comics, scrawls of all sorts, anonymous passages of materials…” (16)
It might be assumed that in Cage’s haste to prepare a performance in a few hours he automatically drew from familiar sources. Given his admiration for Satie, it seems reasonable to suggest marked similarities between the ‘event’ and the ballet Rêlache of 1924 – Satie’s collaboration with Duchamp, Man Ray, Francis Picabia, René Clair and Jean Borlin. (17) For instance, the pouring of water from bucket to bucket, the juxtaposition of fleeting projected imagery with live action, and taking the action into the auditorium appear to have been direct appropriations. Even the whistle-blowing might be seen as a direct reference to banners hung over the stage of Rêlache proclaiming, according to Goldberg, ‘Erik Satie is the greatest musician in the world’, and ‘if you are not satisfied you can buy whistles at the box office for a few farthings.’ (18) And then there were distinct similarities between Cage’s radio composition and Satie’s creation of a form of ‘background noise’ through random appropriation of snippets from other composers in his Musique d’ameublement of 1913. (19) The similarities continue with Cage’s playing of Piaf songs and Satie’s trademark musical quotations of the vernacular, not only in Parade and Rêlache, but throughout his work from the early 1890s, when he appropriated popular tunes for ecclesiastical chants – an experiment which led to an exploration of popular music in its own right. According to Goldberg, Cage proclaimed this performance a success – an ‘anarchic event… purposeless in that we didn’t know what was going to happen’. (20) Some years later, he would say that the purpose of art was ‘purposeless play’. (21)
Given the seminal influence of this performance, it seems reasonable to suggest that not only Cage, but Satie (through Cage), had influenced the fifties vanguard – and arguably beyond. But this performance would not have been possible without Cage’s love of Satie combined with his persistence, against strong opposition, to have Satie recognised by Joseph Albers (then principal of the Black Mountain College) back in 1948. As Satie’s biographer Ornella Volta says: ‘little by little’, it was Cage who ‘managed to introduce Satie’s work to younger generations around the world’. (22) Although Cage is said by Goldberg to have attributed the musical renaissance circa 1935 to the influence of Luigi Russolo and Henry Cowell, the influence of Satie might also have been evident in Cage’s work around that time. In 1937, by Goldberg’s account, and very like the score for Parade, Cage’s manifesto The Future of Music promoted the capturing and controlling of everyday sounds to use as ‘musical instruments’. In 1942, he had presented a performance (like Parade, in war-time) in which musicians ‘played beer bottles, flowerpots, cowbells, automobile brakedrums, dinner bells, thundersheets’ and anything that could be laid hands on – he was then invited to give a similar concert at the Museum of Modern Art. (23)
There can be no doubt that performances such as Parade and Relâche fall under the modernist umbrella, and nor that certain painters promoted by Greenberg in post-war America were also involved in various ways with modernism’s more experimental/anarchic side. However, despite its clear place within the history and context of modernism, the workof Cage and his afficionados in the forties and fifties has been seen in recent years as emblematic of postmodernist practice. This raises questions about what we perceive as the postmodern. Perhaps it depends entirely on one’s interpretation – as in the famous Joseph Jastrow illusion in which we can see either a rabbit or a duck.
(1) RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, New York, 1988, 7
(2) For details and/or designs of Parade see: John Richardson, A Life of Picasso: Volume II: 1907-1917, London, 1996, passim; Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, 77-8, Philippe D’Arschot, ‘Transfiguration de la mimesis: Portrait d’une Exposition’, Art International, Vol. VIII, No. 8, October 20, 1964, 25-28, and Cyril W. Beaumont, The Complete Book of Ballets: A Guide to the Principal Ballets of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, London, 1937, 851-7.
(3) Richardson, A Life of Picasso: Volume II, 421
(4) Goldberg, Performance Art, 125
(5) Jonathan Fineberg, Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being, London, 1995, 175
(6) Linda Wagner and Lewis Macadams Jr., ‘’Robert White Creeley’ (composite interview 1963-1968), Beat Writers at Work: The Paris Review, ed. George Plimpton, New York, 1999, 78
(7) Dore Ashton, The Life and Times of the New York School, Bath, Somerset, 1972, 198
(8) Ibid., 224; Alberto Busignani, Pollock, London, 1971, 92
(9) Willem de Kooning, ‘Willem de Kooning, “The Renaissance and Order”, 1950’, in: Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, ed. Herschel B. Chipp, University of California Press, 1975 (excerpt from a lecture given in 1950 at Studio 35, New York; first published in trans/formation [New York], I, 2 , 86-87), 555
(10) Clifford Ross, ‘Chronology’, in Creators and Critics: An Anthology, ed. Clifford Ross, New York, 297 According to Ross, this was ‘the first magazine to deal exclusively with contemporary American art.’
(11) Richard Kostelanetz, ‘From Claes Oldenburg’, in: Pop Art: A Critical History, ed. Stephen Henry Madoff, University of California Press, 1997 (excerpt, ‘Claes Oldenberg’, The Theatre of Mixed Means, New York, 1968), 235-6
(12) Paul Schimmel, ‘The Faked Gesture: Pop Art and the New York School’, in: Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition 1955-62, ed. Russell Ferguson, exh. cat., The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1993, 20
(13) Goldberg, Performance Art, 126‑7
(15) Claes Oldenburg, ‘I am for an art…’, in: Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1995, 96-97 (previously published in Claes Oldenburg, Store Days: Documents from the Store  and Ray Gun Theater , New York, 1967)
(16) Claes Oldenburg, ‘Ray Gun’ (1959), in Ibid.., 42
(17) Relâche, described as an ‘Instantaneous Ballet in 2 Acts and a Cinematographic Entr’acte, and a “Queue de Chien”’, was the first ballet to use the projection of cinematographic imagery (this was René Clair’s film Entr’acte, which featured Satie). Beaumont, The Complete Book of Ballets, 833
(18) Goldberg, Performance Art, 95
(19) Ornella Volta, Erik Satie, trans. Simone Pleasance, Paris, 1997, 33
(20) Goldberg, Performance Art, 127
(21) Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp: A Biography, London, 1997, 409
(22) Volta, Erik Satie, 11
(23) Goldberg, Performance Art, 123